ISAAC WOLF and THOMAS HARGROVE
Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON — The world's largest commercial genealogy website last week removed the Social Security numbers of recently deceased individuals, two weeks after lawmakers urged the site, Ancestry.com, to stop enabling ID thieves by posting the sensitive information.
A spokeswoman for the Provo, Utah, company said that "there was some sensitivity" about the company policy of releasing the numbers. That led to a "purposeful decision" to not post the numbers for those who have died in the last 10 years, spokeswoman Heather Erickson said.
An employee with a second website, Genealogybank.com, said that the Naples, Fla., company also has decided to stop posting Social Security numbers.
The moves come six weeks after a Scripps Howard News Service investigation showed how people obtain and use the deceased's Social Security numbers -- which are freely released by the government -- to commit identity fraud, including submitting false tax returns and collecting refunds.
Responding to the Scripps Howard articles, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, introduced legislation to limit the release of the so-called "Death Master File," while Senate Democrats urged Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue to stop releasing the information.
The lawmakers are continuing to press Social Security to limit the information it releases. The agency has said it cannot act until Congress changes the law, and a spokesman did not return a request for comment for this article.
Legislators also reached out to genealogy companies, who re-post the records. On Dec. 1, four Senate Democrats -- Bill Nelson of Florida, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Richard Durbin of Illinois -- wrote to officials at five major ancestry websites, urging them to remove the records.
"Your website -- because it lists decedents' entire Social Security numbers -- could be used by identity thieves to perpetrate their crimes," the four lawmakers wrote in letters to each company chief. "We implore you to consider the unintended consequences of making Social Security numbers available to anyone who accesses your website."
Among the other three websites:
-- FamilySearch.org, a website run by the Mormon Church, still had the numbers online Wednesday. But church spokesman Eric Hawkins said: "We are looking into how this matter can be resolved."
-- Indianapolis-based Vitalrec.com accesses the Death Master File through Ancestry.com, which has limited the public's access to the records. Vitalrec.com's operator did not respond to a request for comment.
-- Robert Christie, spokesman for The New York Times, which owns Genealogy.about.com, said, "This is the first we are seeing this note so we can't comment."
Nelson, who this year introduced legislation to limit public access to the Death Master File, praised Ancestry.com's and Genealogybank.com's decisions as a "good first step."
"I encourage other websites to follow suit," he told Scripps Howard. "But more must be done, including having the administration end the policy of immediately selling the Social Security numbers of deceased individuals."